A review of The East Asia Image Collection (Skillman Library Special Collections, Lafayette College).
Several recent studies of Japanese imperialism have interrogated ephemeral sources such as picture postcards, propaganda magazines, and posters to discern what colonial conquest and continental expansion meant to the millions who rallied behind Japan’s ultimately self-defeating campaigns in Asia during the first half of the twentieth century. The East Asia Image Collection (EAIC) is an open-access digital repository of images from all areas of Japan’s empire that was designed to further this research agenda. It has been under construction since 2002 under my editorship in partnership with project developer Eric Luhrs. Initially, I used this archive to contextualize and analyze ethnographic and propagandistic imagery of Taiwan Indigenous Peoples under Japanese colonial rule. Utilizing the database, I disentangled linkages between academic, state, and commercial producers of picture postcards, and charted shifts in thematic emphases and pictorial conventions over the course of Japanese rule.
The East Asia Image Collection is built around a core of picture postcards, scrapbooks, and photographic negatives donated to Skillman Library Special Collections, Lafayette College, by the family of Gerald and Rella Warner. From the beginning of Gerald’s foreign service career in Tianjin in 1931, the Warners took thousands of pictures of cities, monuments, rural life, and the conditions of the Western consular communities in Tokyo, Shanghai, Shenyang, the Netherland East Indies, Taipei, rural Taiwan and several areas in North China. They were also assiduous scapbookers and postcard collectors. Our first release of this project in early 2008 was simply titled the “Gerald and Rella Warner Taiwan Image Collection.” It contained 340 picture postcards and prints. In the past four years, a series of donations, long-term loans, and library acquisitions have expanded the scope of the EAIC considerably. Currently, the EAIC features 2470 prewar picture postcards of Taiwan, China, Korea, Karafuto and Japan, with hundreds more in development, and 4731 records altogether, including Kodachrome slides, black and white negatives, published photograph books and illustrated periodicals.
There are several ways to conduct research in the EAIC. The first is to browse the images by sub-collection. Unique for a digital postcard repository, a number of EAIC sub-collections were built from sets of objects assembled by individual collectors at the time of their original dissemination. This feature allows researchers to analyze distributions of themes, tropes, and icons from different times and places through the eyes of contemporaries, who tended to view sets and collections of cards, rather than isolated items. For example, the “Sino-Japanese War Postcard Album 01” contains ninety-two watercolor paintings of vistas from China (ca. 1937-1941) and the front- and back-matter of the albums. These are mostly idealized portraits of Japanese soldier-Chinese civilian interaction and “traditional” China. Browsing these subcollections is akin to flipping through the pages of the physical albums, which were distributed to Japanese soldiers as mementos of the front and for sending messages home. Other sub-collections include a Russo-Japanese War postcard album assembled between 1904 and 1908 and a full run of the Taiwan shashinchō 台湾写真帳 (Taiwan Photograph Album), a monthly magazine issued by the Taiwan Shashinkai 台湾写真会 (Taiwan Photography Society) from November 1914 through December 1915. The Warner Taiwan Postcards, Lin Chia-feng Family Postcards, and Woodsworth Images represent private collections amassed in Taiwan during the period of colonial rule.
Subject headings from the Outline of Cultural Materials system developed at the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University are assigned to each of the records in EAIC. This system utilizes a decimal system that subordinates specific categories (such as “713 Ordnance” or “717 Military Aircraft”) under general categories (such as “710 Military Technology”). A click on “710” will bring up all EAIC images related to “Military Technology,” while a click on “717” will select only images of Chinese and Japanese fighter and bomber planes or airbases. This system was adapted to facilitate the study of material life in the Japanese empire to help researchers read against the grain of the overtly propagandistic intent of a majority of these images. For example, it is well known that depicting women as beasts of burden was one way colonizers portrayed colonial subjects as atavistic and in need of “uplift.” At the same time, a search for “482 Burden Carrying” in the subject field of EAIC produces a results page of 105 images from Korea, Taiwan, China and Japan that illustrate the various contraptions, postures, and methods used for moving goods and people before the region was crisscrossed with paved roads and railways. Researchers can also create results pages by searching place-names, countries, ethnonyms, photographers or artists.
To facilitate research in conjunction with other collections, EAIC records are cross-referenced with matching records in the Busan Museum Postcard Collection, Taiwan Central Library Postcard Collection and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Records are considered to “match” if they share a common photographic image, painting, or drawing. This feature allows researchers to utilize multiple databases to create larger virtual sets of images for analysis, and to exploit the strengths of each digital collection’s metadata. For example, 326 picture postcards in the EAIC are cross-referenced with the National Central Library’s (NCL) collection in Taipei. The NCL digital collection provides detailed, Chinese-language descriptive metadata of the events and scenes depicted in images, and has a larger collection of Taiwan postcards than EAIC. The EAIC, on the other hand, provides publication information from the backs of the postcards, and allows researchers to view the cards at high resolution (the NCL cards are blurred and illegible, presumably to prevent “bootlegging”). Thus, the two databases are complementary.
Users are free to download low-resolution copies of the images in EAIC for research and teaching purposes. Those interested in using images for publication can contact the project director to request high-resolution images. Presently, the EAIC is adding more sub-collections, including stereo cards of the Russo-Japanese War and photographic negatives from north China in the 1930s. The physical objects that form the basis of the collection—all of the photographic negatives, Kodachrome slides, and photographic books, and a majority of the picture postcards–are housed and accessible at the Skillman Library’s Special Collections at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. In addition, supporting reference works, undigitized postcards, scrapbooks, and illustrated periodicals are available to researchers at the same repository.
Paul D. Barclay
Department of History
Image: “Town of Jinsen. Gingseng Plantation at Kaijyo. Railway Station, Ryuzan.” East Asia Image Collections. Easton, PA: Lafayette College, 2012. Image [ip0770]. (Reproduced with permission of archivist)